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Helping our poorest neighbour

By Sharon Gray

Spending two weeks working in an underdeveloped country may not be everyone’s idea of a great vacation, but for two members of Memorial’s community, there is nothing more satisfying. Yoella Teplitsky, a graduate of the 2008 medical class, and Caroline Koenig, a mechanical engineering technologist working in the Faculty of Engineering, spent two weeks in May in the remote village of Bod Me Limbe in Haiti. For both women it was their second volunteer experience with the project, known as HaitiVillageHealth.

HaitiVillageHealth was founded by Canadian emergency physician, Dr. Tiffany Keenan, a Memorial medical graduate (1998). It is dedicated to providing front line medical care, health education and nutritional support in a region where these services have never existed. Most importantly, said Ms. Koenig, the project is working with the village to ensure access to clean water and sanitation, essential to maintaining a minimum standard of health.

“HaitiVillageHealth is dedicated to self-sufficiency and sustainability – the goal is to assist the people of Bod Me Limbe with the future they are building with their own hands.”

While Ms. Teplitsky worked in the medical clinic, Ms. Koenig offered support services such as setting up cisterns for the first flush toilets, tackling the logistics of functioning in a newly-constructed clinic, and also volunteering in the pharmacy, filling prescriptions.

“I would encourage anyone to volunteer with this program,” said Ms. Koenig. “It opens your eyes to what we take for granted, like the contents of our bathroom medicine cabinets, when these people in Haiti don’t even have a bar of soap.”

At the medical clinic, teams of Canadian doctors, nurses and paramedics see up to 1,400 patients in a ten-day mission, with sick children and adults assessed by a physician. Common complaints include abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, and high blood pressure. There is chronic malnourishment among children, and those age six months to five years are given vitamin A to decrease mortality from rubella and combat night blindness.

The most dangerously malnourished children were started on a feeding program, administered by Ms. Teplistsky, of an enriched peanut butter diet. The peanut butter program was in conjunction with another Haitian organization called Meds and Foods for Kids. As well, medications to combat parasitic worms, due to poor water supply, are distributed during each mission.

One of the two official languages of Haiti is Creole, based primarily on 18th century French. Ms. Yeplitsky and Ms. Koenig made an effort to learn the basics of the language. Although there were translators in the clinic, Ms. Yeplitsky said she would try to say something in Creole to each patient. “Often the patient would look to the translator when I spoke in Creole – it wasn’t that I was saying the words incorrectly, they just didn’t expect it!”

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 146 out of 176 countries in the world. This compares to Canada, at fourth in the world for standard of human development and is an interesting juxtaposition with the adjacent Dominican Republic which ranks 79th in the world.

“While I was in Haiti we went on rickety wooden boats with no life jackets to pick up some supplies on the other side of the island, and there were these huge cruise ships with tourists enjoying a holiday,” said Ms. Koenig. “It’s so close to the poverty of a community like Bod Me Limbe, it is really something to see the contradiction.”

For further information on the HaitiVillageHealth project, visit